Ukrainian pop singer and refugee Natisa Gogol on using her music to fight for queer people

Natisa Gogol in a beige turtleneck stood against a blue and yellow background.

A Ukrainian singer and refugee has spoken about how fleeing the war in her home country inspired her to use music to support the LGBTQ+ community.

Natisa Gogol didn’t think she would survive the night of 24 February 2022. The singer-songwriter, who was born in the city of Dnipro but moved to Kyiv aged 16, awoke at 4.45am to the sound of shelling and gunfire. Russian forces had invaded.

The sun had barely risen by the time she had formulated a plan to flee the country with her son Platon, then just seven years old. “In the morning, my friend came to pick us up, but as we drove away from Antonov airport, we heard shots and explosions,” she recalls.

The plan was to drive from Kyiv to the Polish border, and eventually move to Prague, where her brother lives. Roads were clogged with cars filled with panic-stricken families and the nearing sound of gunfire forced them to change their route.

For the five days that followed, Natisa and Platon slept in their vehicle, edging slowly closer to the Czech Republic.

Almost 18 months on from that night and the war feels far from over, with much of the focus currently on the eastern and south-eastern regions of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. Natisa remains in Prague with her son, but her entire world has been turned on its head.

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“My music, my projects, [are] absolutely changed now because I am changed after war,” she tells PinkNews. “Earlier, [my music would] be light, more easy. But now, I feel deeper. My music is deeper.”

Natisa’s passion for music was ignited at the age of six after she took up piano lessons.

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As a teenager, she left home to attend the Kyiv Municipal Academy of Circus and Performing Arts – known for its celebrity alumni, including Eurovision favourite Verka Serduchka – where she attended singing classes.

By 2008, she was a soloist in Ukraine’s state academic orchestra, where she worked with ‘70s “Daddy Cool” hit-makers Boney M. However, since fleeing Ukraine and becoming a refugee, her career has developed a new meaning.

“I’m thinking about war, about [the] LGBT [community], about something very important for people. I didn’t feel that early [on in my career], but I feel it now. It’s a new me, and I like this new me.

“I’ve never been like I am now. This feeling inside is reflected in the music.”

Her focus is to put social issues front and centre of her music. In May, she released a single entitled “Aesthetics”, a track she describes as being about “overcoming injustice [and] prejudice” and a “love letter to the LGTBQ+ community“, particularly those still in Ukraine facing the threat of Russian occupation

In the track’s futuristic music video, which is slowly approaching 700,000 views on YouTube, Natisa appears to help wake her partly-comatose, partly-brainwashed girlfriend.

“Our feelings may be misunderstood, we tasted most forbidden fruit,” she sings on the synthy pop number, as she and her on-screen lover hold hands and caress each other.

Natisa might not be queer, and the video may seem mild by British or American pop standards, but depicting an LGBTQ+ relationship in Ukrainian media is still a bold move, considering the country remains socially conservative when it comes to support for the community.

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Despite having a rich arts and entertainment industry, there remains a dearth of out LGBTQ+ Ukrainian celebrities. It was only in December 2022 that parliament passed a bill banning homophobic hate speech in the media.

Incidents of anti-LGBTQ+ violence are not uncommon and same-sex marriage remains illegal – although this is something President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pledged to change once the war is over.

Queer people living in Russian-occupied territory are dealing with an even more pernicious threat, as President Vladimir Putin’s vehemently anti-LGBTQ+ agenda silences people and endangers lives.

For Natisa, spreading positive, pro-LGBTQ+ messages in her music is the very least she can do. “I have many friends in the LGBT community, and it’s the best people,” she says.

“Lots of people have lots of problems with [the community], and if I have a voice to talk about it, and if I have the possibility to talk about it, I prefer to talk.”

Another scene in the “Aesthetics” video sees her partner plugged into a chair, absorbing various clips of war and its aftermath, from Nazi occupation in the ‘30s to the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11. It’s a strange message to contrast with the depictions of a queer relationship, but an intentional one.

“I wanted to show the contrast about cruelty,” Natisa explains. “Unfortunately, now in the world we have lots of wars … and we wanted to show that it’s [in] this time when we have all of these terrible things happening, people are still cruel to [other] people who love each other. It’s two conflicts in one video.”

While the singer sees her self-asserted allyship as a pillar of her music career, her primary aim is to ensure the eyes of the world continue to see the Ukrainians displaced by Russia, and those still living in war-torn towns.

The first single she released after fleeing Ukraine, “Wind of Hope”, was pieced together in her head in the hours between Kyiv and Prague, inspired by the scores of people also attempting to escape.

“Tell me why they broke into our house, tell me why they tore apart our lives,” she sings.

Ukraine is our heart and it is my mission to tell people of the world,” she says. “Everybody needs to know about this. Everybody needs to feel this pain of the Ukrainian people.”

For someone who has suffered such trauma and survived her life being turned on its head, she is remarkably optimistic.

“I feel absolutely new,” she laughs, when asked how she feels about life in Prague. “I feel it’s destiny. I am where I need to be … The universe is very smart, I believe that God and the universe have all planned for my career, for my family, music, life.”

Natisa is settled, and set on how she wants to use her voice to make a difference, however small. “Now, [I just] want to talk about all the world’s problems,” she says.

“Aesthetics” and “Wind of Hope” are available now.

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